Email – usage and abusage

The classic work on the writing of good english ‘Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English’ has helped a generation to improve their written work. The use of email, and what should be accepted as good or bad practice, seems to lack such seminal guidance notes. Of the 200 plus emails that reach my inbox most days about 20% are deleted without opening based on the Title. To me that is good, I have been able to judge whether the message is relevant without spending time opening it. Another 10-20%, and these are mostly internal communications, have no useful title and may be a ‘FW: FW: FW:’ message as I have grown to call them. These messages are effectively internal spam and have been passed on from one internal mailing list to another on the off chance they hit an interested reader. These often get deleted without reading on busy days. That leaves me with only 120 messages to deal with. Assuming one message per 30 seconds that reduces my email reading time from 100 minutes to 60 minutes; a great gain. Every once-in-a-while I try to persuade colleagues that better email practice could save not just a few minutes per day but whole working years at an institutional level. The arrival, this morning, of a 10 line email with a 50 line footer, caused me to consider whther I should revive my periodic campaign for good email practice. I have a few basic rules that I try to apply:

1) Do I actually need to send the message at all, and really to that many people (tested by thinking about whether I would have circulated the same message as a memo or letter in the old days of paper communicaton);

2) Do use an informative and relevant title;

3) Don’t automatically copy the entire message thread in;

4) Don’t attach huge files;

5) Keep the message short and to the point.

I wonder whether we might compile a good practice guide as part of our digital literacy activities – perhaps a student research project?

At the risk of sounding as outraged as Mary Whitehouse, and perhaps showing the internet skills of Mrs Trellis of North Wales, my personal opinion is that it is time we addressed email usage and abusage and saved the institution a lot of time and a lot of bandwidth.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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25 Responses to Email – usage and abusage

  1. Doug Belshaw says:

    I think that’s great place to start, Alastair, as it’s a problem many people face. I’d throw into the mix which is a link I put into my email footer and a policy I stick to.

    It’s amazing what happens when:
    a) You limit yourself to five sentences (others start doing likewise)
    b) You pick up the phone instead of answering a lengthy email (they stop sending them)


  2. Guy Pursey says:

    Great post, Alastair, tackling a problem which I think most people will recognise. I like your first point; e-mail can be such an quick and effective means of distribution, that it’s easy to lose sight of it as a means of communication.

    Thanks for the link to Doug — such a simple idea but, as someone occasionally guilty of long e-mails myself, it’s something I might start trying!

    I’m not sure it’s always possible to keep important information down to five sentences; I often try to keep such e-mails down to three number points instead and have something like “Three items” as my subject header, especially when sending out to lots of people.

  3. patparslow says:

    OK, clearly I will have to play Devil’s Advocate here. Or maybe, just express my take on it!

    Email has the great benefit of allowing an idea to be explored. Short pithy ‘communications’ are seldom worth spending the time reading – they are somebody trying to bounce an idea/job on to you, and not being prepared to explore, explain and negotiate the meaning of what is being said. Short and pithy is actually great for phone calls – where you are eating in to someone else’s time, and not even having the courtesy to allow them to schedule it into the other work they are doing. Email, on the other hand, as an asynchronous medium, allows considered responses, and for ideas to be discussed.

    Good subject lines, obviously, are important.

    Personally I have no objection to the context of the latest contribution being included in an email – it is often (imho) important and useful to be able to look down to see what that context is. Whilst I have a little sympathy for those who like to replay at the end or to intersperse their responses in the body of quoted text, I must admit I find both slow down the processing of most email.

    I’d say you should capture the essence of the email in the first couple of lines, but expand on that in a longer email (unless you really are just asking if someone wants coffee…).

    Attaching large files – well, yes, I have to agree – there is not really any call for sending file attachments these days. However, within an institution it isn’t always easy to find ways to easily share files (at least, ways every is happy/conversant with), so I must confess I do send them sometimes – but I try not to send them to large numbers of recipients.

    Bandwidth/storage are an issue, but I think the real focus should be, as with most things, on the human issues; so, time, understanding, relationships are more important (I feel) than whether the institution needs to buy a new hard-disk every week.

    Sorry, did you say I should keep it brief? 😉

  4. Doug Belshaw says:

    Hi Pat,

    Thanks for the riposte. Without wanting to start an argument, that comment could have been half the length. Five sentences, in fact. 😉

  5. Guy Pursey says:

    Pat’s comment about summarising in the first couple of lines reminds me of the structure of newspaper articles. Perhaps, when it comes to etiquette or general guidance for e-mails that need to be longer, we could learn some lessons from that…

    Subject header = headline
    First few lines = succinct summary of content
    As we go down the e-mail = more detail for those who have time/inclination

  6. Shirley Williams says:

    Excellent post.
    I think an institutional wide costing of those “FW: FW: FW:” would be very revealing.

  7. Mark Cockshoot says:


    My take is along these lines:

    1) YES! Don’t send an email if it’s not necessary.

    2) Titles are important

    3) Actually I find it useful to have the whole thread copied in (although less now I use conversation view in Outlook). Sometimes I can’t find or have deleted the previous messages and sometimes I’m included at the tail end of a conversation.

    4) Well, that’s not always possible. We (ITS) are working on other ways to send/receive large files, but until then – email might have to do.

    5) I’m with Pat on this with the caveat that messages should only be as long as they need to be to communicate what needs to be said.

    And finally….

    Bandwidth is a non issue, currently (at peak times) we use less than 10% of our total bandwidth.

    File store is also less of an issue at the moment. We recently more than doubled our enterprise lass storage and are looking at ways to archive emails and less used files on to cheaper, slower file store.



  8. It’s good to hear that I shouldn’t be worrying when 35 students each try to send me a 30Mb file on the same day. I’d still rather they uploaded them to the Blackboard Grade Centre 🙂 I also use Dropbox to share files with colleagues outside and inside the University to avoid clogging up email and to help with version control.

  9. Anton Lawrence says:

    Slightly off-topic but just to follow up on Mark’s point – the amount of “stuff” you have in your mailbox is less concerning from a central storage point of view (we have more disk, and are enabling data de-dupe on the stores – savings of 20% so far) but can still affect the user experience – large mailboxes can take longer to open and index and this can cause problems especially on older/slower machines. And ITS still get the blame…

    This, along with data management issues are reasons that we hope to pilot an archive system within ITS shortly. I will try and provide some feedback on that at some point.

    On the general subject of email etiquette, you have to be careful not to be too restrictive. A few years vback I saw two docuiments about email etiquette, directly contradicting each other, but both quite valid for their own purpose.

    Finally, ITS have some related guidance ( about not getting your email marked as Spam. Is this useful?



  10. I’m not trying to be restrictive or dictatorial:-)
    My comments were really along the lines – if you want your email read:
    1) Don’t send too many,
    2) Tell people what they are about,
    3) Only include what you should,
    4) Think about appropriate ways to send large files, and
    5) short messages are more likely to get read to the end.
    I would not want anyone to feel they should never send another consenting adult an email of 30,000 words IF that seemed appropriate. My experience is that most students (and most other people) do not read past the first few lines.

  11. Following Mark’s earlier comment – Long threads on emails are not always a single conversation. There have been some instances where messages between individuals who might no longer be in the message thread get passed on unintentionally. This can have unfortunate consequences. The UEA Climategate scandal led us all to the advice that any email is essentially a public document, but emails are not sent with that intention. Many of my meterologist friends now use the phone in preference to email 🙂

  12. … and of course, I blame ITS 🙂

    Not really!

  13. Anton Lawrence says:

    How do you think people would react to instant messaging as a work supported service (and integrated with email)? My own feeling is that some people would use it, but most wouldn’t. Its bad enough getting people to use a calendar… 🙂

  14. Kim Shahabudin says:

    Thanks to Alastair for raising email issues – so ubiquitous now that they often get overlooked as part of the digital literacy agenda. I’m frequently guilty of all the crimes named – but agree with Pat that it’s still easier (and more productive) to factor responding to emails into my schedule than answering incessant phone calls or drop-ins.
    The practice I cannot understand is those people who leave everything in their Inbox. A friend recently admitted to having over 4000 messages in their Inbox – what is the point?! Like Alastair, I practise email triage – first from the heading, then file what I can’t deal with immediately into a Pending folder which I try to clear once a week – pretty standard stuff and I can’t say the Pending folder is often cleared on time! I’d be interested to know what other people do in terms of email management – given that we can only model good practice and so will still have to deal with the email mountain from others…

    • patparslow says:

      Now, of course, I will undo any credit I may have earned with Kim by saying I leave almost all my mail in my inbox. True, I use gmail for most things, but I find that there is little benefit to spending time organising my mail (most of which I am not all that interested in reading straight away), and it is trivial and fast to search for things I need.

      That is not to say that there is no benefit to organising emails. The act of deciding where one should ‘go’ in a hierarchy helps the process of remembering what is there and drawing things together in a ‘concept space’ to improve understanding of the bigger picture. But unless I use a system which allows for tagging, rather than a hierarchy, I find this actually limits my understanding of the bigger picture – so many emails don’t fit neatly in to one pigeon hole.

      400 in their inbox? Lightweight 🙂 Mine is on 40,650 and 25,200 are unread. But then, a lot of them are social networking notifications, calls for papers which clearly don’t fit my current needs, Google alerts I occasionally wish to refer to, or the like.

    • Anton Lawrence says:

      Personally I dislike large amounts of email in my Inbox, but since the search tools have become much better, you can easily search through a big pile rather than spend time moving and filtering.

      Couldn’t do it myself though…

  15. Tim Johnson says:

    Where do I start!
    1) I hate telephone messages and little bits of paper stuffed under my door – give me a long rambling email any day
    2) Don’t waste our time phoning me – you’ll interrupt me and I’ll forget about our conversation as soon as I put the phone down
    3) I re-direct all my mail to my google account – google suits the way I work, I delete a lot immediately, I label somethings, at the end of the month I create a new label just for the remaining emails and archive everything
    4) The only thing I ask of emailers is: if you don’t know me really, really well, please learn to write english
    5) I never blame ITS just Management 🙂

  16. I also find the telephone intrusive and am looking forward to a new University system that tells me who is calling and doesn’t rely on a psychic filtering process.

    Paper stuffed under the door goes straight in the (recycling) bin.

    Have a good weekend!

    • Anton Lawrence says:


      I have one of those. It allows you to freak people out by saying “Hello [insert name]” when they call 🙂

      Telephone is useful when you want to find out info, but not great for asking me to do any work (i.e. if you want a yes/no answer then fine, but otherwise email). We had a demo of Lync recently – an interesting looking system, but I worry that it would get used in the same way as telephone. Also I have nasty images of being bombarded with messages the next time the Uni email system has a go slow/goes kaput.



  17. Now here is a very interesting article from the BBC website.
    The gist is that the consultancy firm ATOS are planning to implement a zero internal email policy.

    • patparslow says:

      One thing that fascinates me in that is this:
      “We are careful with what we send and receive externally, but internally you use it more and more as a communication tool, or to store your own content, or to protect yourself from your boss or whoever.

      We are not using it the way it was intended to be used.”

      Even if we accept Mr Breton’s view that email wasn’t intended to be used as a communication tool (which I admit I find a little far-fetched as ideas go!), why on earth should you be limited to only using a tool for the things for which it was originally intended?

      • I have come across another response in this debate, which I feel gets to the true heart of the matter, in so far as it discusses the cultures behind the usage, going for the cause, not the symptom.

        Blame the Blackberry: Company Policies that Miss the Point | Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) | Created and Implemented by CultureRx

  18. An interesting article Gordon, but it seems to be aimed more at one to one emails than the internal spam I was complaining about. It does raise the additional point of the 24 hour communication expectation that is arising. All those iPhones around campus taking away private time and space. My worry about such technology is that we end up with email becoming as demanding of ‘instant satisfaction’ as the telephone is. I’m beginning to crave paper memoranda – there were not many (cost and time of distribution) and an instant reply was not expected… Whatever happened to clay tablets and the marathon man to move urgent messages 🙂 still in information overload!

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